practical idealism & the holy land

As days and weeks have meshed together and mid-May has become mid-July, I take some stock of the weird stuff that has happened this summer, here in Kigali, Rwanda.

I couldn’t help think of all of the ups-and-downs as I passed a man walking swiftly past me. His shirt said something to the effect of, “every day I’m snufflin,” inclusive of a Sesame Street character reminiscent of way back when. I couldn’t help but smile and think, yep, life sure is strange here.


*My job as an independent consultant to the bank really has become, well independent – my supervisor was recently demoted to another department, leaving me manager-less and ridin’ solo in the world of education finance. That’s been interesting. What this has meant is me giving slideshow presentations to room full of students, telling them how a loan could change the course of their educational path.

*I discovered a secret informant, and that’s all I can really say about that.

*I, along with some of my friends, met one of the three Rwandan visionaries in the mountain town of Kibeho, whom the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared to in the 1980’s. Perhaps one of the most surreal experience ever.

*I served meat (namely beef) to top government officials at a post-funeral BBQ. Don’t ask.

*I watched World Cup matches at the open, fresh, and green lawn of the United States of America Embassy amidst hundreds of Americans and at other times in a dimly lit Kenyan bar with a cold Skol beer.

Really, not much surprises me anymore.

The fluidity of life here makes it so that routine is nearly impossible and days will bring you all sorts of places – good and bad.

People regularly ask, “how long have you been here?,” shocked that a) I could possibly speak Kinyarwanda and that b) I would continue to be here when I’m from the “promised land” of America. Wait. You left America, worked here, went home, and came back AGAIN? Apparently, this is mind-blowing a lot of times.

In ways, the 2 ½ years of time I have invested in Rwanda feels like forever and in other ways, it feels like so much more of a time warp where I can’t really fathom the continuum and diversity in which I have worked and lived in this country.


And so, well, here’s the thing.

There’s more where that came from.

About a month ago, when summer was kickin’ into gear and the summer sun was hitting its peak (not that it really changes that much in equatorial Africa), I received an email from and old Peace Corps colleague. I saw the subject line and the sender and I didn’t have a clue in the least what it would be about. The message was pretty short and sweet:

Hey. Along with a capable and motivated group of Rwandan women, we are launching and expanding a social enterprise. You in?

And okay, of course there was way more to it than that. Yet, that was the hook-line-and sinker of the email; I was being offered a job. Not a volunteer position. A JOB.

The Rwanda Women’s Bakery, based in Eastern Rwanda, has been established as a subsidiary of an LLC (called The Women’s Bakery) that is aiming to use this small business start-up model around Rwanda and even the world to empower women. It all started as a small cooperative in my colleague’s Rwandan village when she was working as an education sector Peace Corps Volunteer. Women saw her baking, she taught them some of the basics, and the idea for a business began. With increased investment, business support, and a defined plan, the small social enterprise is ready to scale up. I, along with another former Peace Corps Volunteer, will be on board for a year to enable the operation and expansion of the bakery and its business model. The bakery addresses malnutrition by incorporating nutritious, locally-based ingredients into bread products, such as peanut flour as a substitute for the normal flour utilized. Moreover, women are trained and prepared to function autonomously. I will work (oh, and making a 5-figure income) to work myself out of a job: we are going to work to implement Rwandan-motivated internal organization and leadership. It’s a RWANDAN business through and through; yes, this is a development model I can get behind. Finally, a like-minded job opportunity that I feel strongly about. And hey, if it works, who knows where this could professionally end up. It’s risky, but I am drawn to that.

I exchanged emails with my colleagues, asking questions and considering what joining the team would mean. I also talked it over with my parents, and a couple of my best friends from back home, as I highly value their input. About a week ago, I committed to the one-year contract and agreed to jump in – with work starting this fall, in October, after a couple of months back home once I return to Colorado next month. I never imagined a small business venture as my next set of cards, so to speak, but hey that’s life. It’s full of unexpected surprises.

Something I have really learned about myself this summer is the need in my life for practical idealism; slowly, I feel a pull to emphasize certain passions I have (say, women’s empowerment) and combining that value with a practical approach (like, starting a business, for example). Because ultimately, I will be able to do all of the things I love – leadership development, mentorship, relationship building – while also feeding into something tangibly sustainable. The reality of poverty is this, especially as it concerns women: capital is needed. If you can provide both components – social and economic – welcome to social enterprise. Welcome to an opportunity to transform gender roles, expectations, and a real shot at having a long-term impact.

Where Peace Corps engaged my altruistic, idealistic, and optimistic belief in women’s empowerment, Urwego Opportunity Bank (UOB) has tempered that in the need for something that gives tangible ownership. I’m grateful for this summer for that reason more than anything; I realize now that we can still change women’s lives, but we may need to do so in ways we never before thought of. Or, in ways at least I never really thought of. My upcoming job will combine the cultural integration, social impact, relational development that I care so much about with accessibility to the market and actual financial worth.


My eyes were wide open when we entered the small room and we saw her just standing there, greeting people, praying, no big deal. We had reached Kibeho, Rwanda earlier in the morning to accomplish two things:

1)     To visit Maisara’s school (literally on the property of the historical site, “The Holy Land” and,


welcome to the holy land - rwanda
welcome to the holy land – rwanda
a look at maisara's school.
a look at maisara’s school.

2)    To tour Kibeho.

kibeho, southern province
kibeho, southern province
the girls. reunited.
the girls. reunited.

I had come last year with Divine and a group from my church on the annual Catholic pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and now I was back again to see the place that visitors from all over the world come to see. Mary sightings here have been confirmed three times and in dramatic fashion too. When the visionaries saw the Virgin Mary, they also claimed to foresee bloodshed and incredible violence – all of this happening about a decade before the 1994 Genocide.

The gift shop, adjacent to a prayer chapel, held colorful rosaries and other trinkets that tourists can take back home to remember their experience. Also in the room was Natalie, the second of the three Rwandan visionaries. Um. WHAT?!

She greeted us, clapping lightly each time one of us made our introductions (I’m not kidding), telling her where we lived in Rwanda what we had been doing in this country.

PEACE is the only word that can describe those brief interactions.

It was like she held onto every word, giving us her undivided attention, as if we were the only people in the room. Simply, this woman exudes a sense of kindness that you find in few people.

When we turned to go and make our way down the hill to the holy water (amazi umugisha) I turned back and saw her head bowed in prayer, just 10 or so feet from us, in the middle of the courtyard. That’s the love and grace of God, I think. People had told us that Natalie feels called to pray. So, that’s literally how she spends her life. She’s praying throughout the day, always speaking and talking with God. I’m sorry, but that’s pretty darn cool.

It made me think:

We move forward and leave and do new things, but may we always bow our heads, remembering the constant that ties it all together – the force by which we are able to trust doors that close and doors that open.




Margauex and Zahara taking 'holy water'.
Margauex and Zahara taking ‘holy water’.
being shown the place the Virgin Mary appeared to a student by a school administrator at Kibeho
being shown the place the Virgin Mary appeared to a student by a school administrator at Kibeho
in front of the cathedral - kibeho, rwanda
in front of the cathedral – kibeho, rwanda
the cross on top of the cathedral at Kibeho
the cross on top of the cathedral at Kibeho

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Heather Newell Oglesby

Hi! I'm Heather. I am a writer and counselor in-training. I share stories so we can keep the magic of being human alive. I spend a great deal of time going on long walks with my wife, rollerblading, learning, and traveling to find new adventures. By day, I work as an Education and Employment Specialist for Jefferson Center for Mental Health, working with adolescents who have experienced their first episode of psychosis. A Colorado native, I love dark-roasted coffee, sunshine, and succulents. Enthusiasm, passion, and possibility: that's me at my best.

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